Takeaways from a Pitching Masterclass

Pitching is 95% practice and 5% inspiration. -Annette Kramer

A couple of weeks ago I attended a pitching masterclass by Annette Kramer. It’s part of this strange habit I’ve developed that I watch masterclasses on Youtube to pick up ideas for my own coaching sessions. Now I decided to watch a live one. But more on that in some other blog post…

I learned things about conducting a live masterclass including interaction with the audience. In addition, I also picked up a few ideas that I believe would be useful for testers. Communication skills are among the core skills of testers and I’d say pitching is a subset that could be useful to have in your toolkit.

Format

This masterclass focused on the 3-5 minute pitch format which, according to Annette, is the hardest pitch to do. This is because talking for longer is easier – you have time to expand on your points (though you may water down the content this way…). The masterclass was mostly targeted at different business representatives who need to do pitching to investors or potential business partners. We had a good mix of people: from a startup pitch to looking for partners for school software to a showroom rep. Therefore, it was great to see exampels of pitches for different audiences.

Annette live-coached the pitch makers starting from how they walked to take their spot, to how they stood, how they expressed themselves, and she also re-engineered the flow of their pitch on the fly while also including the audience in giving feedback. It was inspiring to look at how she worked with people.

Selective Hearing: Lessons in Communication

Annette says that when an investor listens to a pitch, they hear “blah blah blah will I make any money on this blah blah blah when will I earn money back blah blah”. When a potential business partner listens to a pitch, they hear “blah blah blah will this make me look good blah blah will I make/lose money with this blah blah”.

How does your audience listen and what is important to them?

Do you focus more on what you want to say or what they want to hear?

During the past year I’ve dealt with C-level and other directors and managers more than I previously have, so this one hits home and is a good reminder. I know I frequently fall into the trap of thinking more about what I want to say and what I hope the effect to be, rather than doing more listening to be able to target the message better. And understand the people I work with better.

From observing a number of testers over the past year, I think there is an important takeaway/reminder here: when talking to your manager (or some other stakeholder/decision maker) about testing, don’t focus so much on your specific testing problem but on the impact of the problem. When focusing on the impact of the problem, you can think of what that manager/stakeholder sees and what they’d like to hear. I bet it won’t be some testing-specific talk about the issue you want to address or the idea you want to introduce. I bet it would help you if they heard “blah blah solving this will make us look good blah blah blah solving this will mitigate the risk of not fulfilling financial goals that  a director somewhere set me blah blah blah”.

That being said, I really liked and I agree with Annette’s proposition that you can’t sell or push ideas on people – it’s much more liberating to think of pitching as a way to offer people an opportunity. So this is why you need to know what your audience cares about and is interested in.

I don’t do pitching on the stage to my managers but I treat some hallway conversations or situations at meetings as micro-pitching opportunities. I have a lot of ideas and I keep looking for ways to get buy-in or traction to take the ideas further. I don’t always know which ones get better traction which means I need to pitch them several times to different people. Which takes me to the next takeaway…

Process. Process Everywhere.

Annette emphasized that it’s useful to think of pitching as a step in the process, and to keep the process in mind (not the result). The goal of the pitch isn’t to close the deal because hey, that hardly happens so easily (or right after a pitch).

The goal of the pitch is to get people asking questions, to keep the conversation going. When I later talked to Annette about it, she said that we do this outside work all the time. And I said, “Oh, this is why we have friends… because we keep the conversation going and this is a process”.

When trying to approach a decision maker with an idea (which probably will take up time (=money) and money, so there are considerations in their mind you may not know about), don’t think of it as a “make or break” situation at the first try. I find myself sometimes doing this exact thing and then getting frustrated. Well, that’s not helpful, is it? And it’s not helpful because if I focus too much on the result, I forget about the process of getting the result. Introducing new ideas in organizations can be difficult, so focusing on the process, focusing on starting and keeping the conversation going is helpful.

Mean It. Clearly.

It was fascinating to watch Annette pick up the difference between when the speaker really meant and believed in what they said and when they didn’t because they focused on what to say (or remembering what to say…). I observed a significant difference in this person’s body language and facial expressions in the pitch after Annette had made some adjustments and asked them some questions to help them discover what they actually meant.

And I mean if I could pick it up, so can you. And other people will pick it up about you. Here’s another takeaway: don’t be abstract, be specific. It will be hard for you to say it like you mean it if the concepts you use are too abstract (and it will be hard to grasp).

Annette did a great job helping people to be specific and get the real meaning out from behind the words. I think this is also a process: you start with an idea, and through practicing a pitch for it, you peel away layers and arrive at the core that will be specific and clear.

We also addressed the issue of using jargon and how this makes attempts at being specific revert to being abstract (“What do you mean by [this thing]?”). I’ve also observed in testers that they tend to use testing jargon when talking to stakeholders who don’t know anything about testing (or don’t care about it…). It’s a similar point to that above: think about the audience you have and what they can understand and want to hear (probably not jargon). Focus on the problem that they feel related to. Annette pointed out why TED talks are so great: among other things, the speakers avoid jargon (so that everyone can understand what they’re talking about).

And don’t talk on autopilot!

Autopilot leads to not really putting yourself in the words you’re saying and you end up “just talking” not delivering a message.

Annette had a great tip for this: remember why you care about what you do/say BEFORE you say it.

***

I’ll blog a bit more on the pitch structure and other takeaways in another post.

A Hot Pink, Feathery, Blistering TestBash

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When walking down the street in a bright blue Ministry of Testing T-shirt, hot pink feather boa, and grey Crocs in Kemp Town in Brighton on a Friday night, you blend right in. Nothing to worry about.

TestBash is one of the events that feels more like a community gathering or even a family get-together than a conference. Of course, this really depends on what your definition of a conference is… Having just got back from my second TestBash as a volunteer, I’m happy to report that TestBash stands for everything a good testing conference is about for me – passionate professionals, curious newcomers welcomed to the community, meetups, family vibe, top-notch talks and workshops, high energy, a little bit of cool and flair and craziness, great humor, fountains of inspiration…

However, the beginning of TestBash was worryingly blistering for me. Quite literally, I arrived in Brighton only to limp to the hotel in pain.  Newish shoes caused serious damage to my left heel. Never have I ever seen such a big broken blister on myself. I was sitting in my hotel room thinking I had to stay there for the whole time… But then it’s all about problem solving and reaching out to people, right? So I cleaned and patched it up, took a taxi to the pub where the pre-pre-TestBash meetup was supposed to take place, and was so happy to hug Rosie that I cried.

And then I got to talk to some friends in the pub and things were looking up. The next day Rosie brought me a pair of Crocs as I couldn’t wear my own shoes. And I was good to go running around in Crocs to facilitate the two workshops, make sure things run smoothly, problems get solved, and workshop leads can focus on their work.

The Workshop Day

First happening of the morning – taxi tried to take me to some other location than that of the workshops.

Ash Winter’s workshop on system architecture and testing the bigger picture contained lots of group work and exercises that layered models through learning cycles. Ash asked participants to visualize a system architecture through some analogy. For example, authentication got visualized using the analogy of a party – who’s allowed to get in and who’s not, and how this system works. There were quite a few others. Even though this analogy is yet another model and does not represent technically what authentication does, it helps to familiarize the concept and some elements of the system. As someone who still needs to learn the ropes of such things more deeply, I find this exercise helpful.

Then it was time to build a model of the architecture based on snippets of information from different sources. Then we learned about FIBLOTS by Scott Barber to layer it on top of the model. And then the heuristics of testability by James Bach were used to identify places in the architecture where testability could be improved. Overall a great workshop by Ash, so if he happens to run it elsewhere, surely check it out!

The second workshop of the day that I facilitated was by Alexandra Casapu and it was focused on examining testing skills. I attended this workshop at Let’s Test 2015 and found it to be an excellent balance between individual reflection and reflecting in a group – all focused on understanding skills. There are exercises that direct you to dig in the past and exercises to observe and discuss skills in an actual problem solving situation. I recommend you attend this workshop when you have the opportunity. Meanwhile, you can work on mapping your skills on the website Alexandra created: testing skills map repo.

In the evening we went to Brighton beach and had some beers, had some fun, talked about stuff, got tattooed, too. Radomir Sebek spent some time on the pen challenge with his colleague from Berlin. I had some great conversations with folks. As a result, I’m looking forward to a blog post from Kim Knup about the “5 minute feature pitches” they do at Songkick and, hopefully, a talk by Beren Van Daele at a conference (through Speak Easy) who accepted the challenge. He already completed another challenge: he did a 99 second talk at TestBash! Also had a very nice chat with Phil Harper. And Danny Dainton. And… oh, you know the meetup stuff 🙂

TestBash Day

I woke up bright and early and it was going to be a beautiful day. I enjoyed a rose&pistacchio mocha, then waited at the Brighton Dome’s backstage door while observing a pair of seagulls sharing the remains of a pear (it looked like it), and watched an unassuming squirrel go about its stuff.

Once Rosie and other volunteers and helpers arrived, we got signed in, got our backstage passes, and we made our way to the sweet spot. Emma and me did some prep for the Lean Coffee session we were going to host. It would’ve been more work for us but there were some experienced “lean baristas” at the tables who knew the process and could help folks for whom it was the first encounter with such format. I already figured a cool visual guide would help in this case as it wasn’t a space where you could yell instructions, and people were spilling in continuously for a while. The list of topics collected from the post-it notes is available on GitHub.

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As far as the conference talks were concerned, I found the content of talks to be consistently strong throughout the day. The videos will be posted at the Dojo site later and I recommend to watch them all. Probably the most emotionally moving talk for me was Nicola Sedgwick’s about thick skin and caring about what you do which somehow makes everything much more stressful. Since I was on mic duty, I was trying to maintain dry eyes.

Bill Matthews made us feel a little discomfortable as he shared the challenges of testing smart algorithms. Lisa and Emma had packed a lot of wisdom and practical advice into the talk about building the right thing. Michael “Wanz” Wansley masterfully delivered a somewhat controversial talk about gatekeeping, and we could get a wiff of Grammy dust along with it. A totally non-grumpy Patrick Prill talked about ignorance, knowledge, and the Mount Stupid (and it was his first conference talk!). John Stevenson broke out some techno to remind us of model fatigue, encouraging us to be more creative with models we use. Katrina and Nicola made sure the Kiwi front was strong by talking about a pairing experiment, and being the sole tester in the team respectively. The lovely Dan Billing discussed the importance and necessity of security testing. Anna and Andrew discussed how “testers doing the coding” is the least of your problems when trying to move to test automation.

Sometime during the day I contracted a hot pink feather boa. You know, just to make sure everyone knows I’m a volunteer not some normal person attending the conference. Others were seen toting tutus around different body parts.

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Photo: courtesy of Jokin Aspiazu, my favourite Spanish tester (from left to right: Guna, Huib, me, Pekka).

I’m sure there was something for everyone to take away. The crowd was supportive and emotional, there was a great vibe throughout the whole conference.

As the final event, there was a gathering at another pub, and also a poetry slam to which I arrived somewhat late (sorry, I was having a convo downstairs). But I delivered my post-apocalyptic stream-of-consciousness poem anyway. Well, at least Mark was blown away 😀 And then I had other good conversations (some brief, some longer) with Noah, Rhian, Mike

It was also incredibly great to meet my PSL buddies Chris, Lim and Ioana again. Gotta say – “PSL buddy hugs” are of a special kind!

Then I took a stroll in my aforementioned outfit, got a bit of sleep and headed to train station through foggy Brighton.

All the love to Rosie for having me (and for the Crocs!). All the love for the community that came together. All the love to Brighton for being wonderful.

I hope to be back.

TestBash Poetry. Post-apocalyptic Stream-of-consciousness: A Project Wasteland

By Mark Tomlinson’s request, here’s the poem I wrote for the post-TestBash meetup’s poetry slam.

Recommended soundtrack: Pendulum – Another Planet

Curiosity crawls across

the craquelure wasteland

crows peck at the empty casks of bugs

hollow echoes report

passes in passing

failing at failures

nitpickety checking machines

trawling and harvesting ungrown

premature fetuses of bugs

a scrum master was seen

scrambling to escape the

creepy crack in craqueluresque surface

of the planet known as The Pisshole

he was never to be seen, we lost the visual

herders cajoling lines of code

snappy whips and contraptions

squeezing petrified lambs of code

faster harder

towards the horizon of deadline always

always too close

fearfully frightened of falling

into darkness

sliding over the edge of the known land

finding solace in the abyss of failed  projects

curiosity turns into dust

fat rolls of dust

waves of dust in an ocean of boredom

and certainty

silence slithers hand in hand with hopelessness

nothing new, nothing arousing

appears until a barometric change

rolls across

swish! swirl!

feathering swarthy faces and ghostly white eyes

’tis coming! ’tis coming!

lo and behold! dark and full cloud

in need of emptying rumbling

over the dry forgotten land

trickling, tinkering, letting go

torrents of inspiration

penetrating the craquelure

transforming, filling up

impegrating immortality

thunder approaches, voices distinguished

and nurtured by desert ears

tickling neurons, zapping grey matter

praise the voice of the community

we might be out of the woods

***

I’ve been writing stuff – short stories and poems – since I can remember myself. When I was 11 years old, I stumbled across Sylvia Plath’s poems (The Colossus and Other Poems in English with Estonian translations) and these changed how I wrote poetry and how I perceived what’s possible in poetry. Sylvia’s poems liberated me from trying to rhyme and showed me the power of imagery and word play, contrasts and emotions.